Solar electricity is an important contribution to the world of renewable energy.
Believe it or not, innovative thinkers started developing solar powered technology as early as the 1860s. The first solar panels ever put on a rooftop were installed in 1884 by Charles Fritts, who invented the first working solar power cell, called the Selenium Cell, in 1883.
The Selenium Cell had an efficiency of only 1%, while today’s silicon-based solar cells average at about 17%. Still, the Selenium Cell was truly world-changing.
Unfortunately, using selenium and a thin layer of gold, the solar cells created by Fritts were expensive for energy usage.
However, these gold-plated cells have been used in other devices, including cameras. Up until the 1960s, selenium cells in cameras provided light sensors for exposure timing.
Considering that solar energy first got its start in the mid to late 1800s, the failure of the solar electric generating system to take the world by storm earlier is perhaps surprising.
However, the invention of the automobile and the explosive use of petroleum sidetracked solar development. Solar electric propulsion was simply not an option in the early heyday of Henry Ford’s mass automobile production.
However, with the development of energy efficient photovoltaic cells, solar power finally started hitting the mainstream in the 1970s. While solar-powered cars still aren’t on the foreseeable horizon, we have solar power for homes and businesses, solar power plants, and portable solar generators, even hand-held ones.
A Look at Solar Power’s Renewable Energy Cousins
Solar power may have been one of the first modern attempts at renewable energy, but it is now joined by a variety of alternative energy sources. Here are the main competitors to the solar electricity company:
1. Wind Power
Wind power is nothing new, and it has actually been around since antiquity. Consider the beautiful, iconic windmills that still dot the landscape of the Netherlands today. Most of these types of wooden windmills were used to grind grain.
One of the first windmills – or “windwheel” – was developed by the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria in the first century. Hero’s windwheel was not used for agriculture but for music. His wind-powered invention was used to power an organ. Heron also invented the first vending machine and the first-ever steam engine (in recorded history) called the “aeolipile.”
Today, wind power is most commonly known for the large, stark white electricity-generating windmills that appear in remote landscapes, especially in the America West. Critics are concerned they can kill birds, however.
2. Hydropower (Water)
As with wind power and windmills, hydropower has a long history. Water wheels have been in use for thousands of years among various cultures, including Egypt and China. Ancient Egyptians used paddle-driven water-lifting wheels by 400 BC, and they also invented the compartmentalized water wheel.
The Romans also used water power, including a vertical-axle watermill that dates from around 300 BC, to a horizontal watermill from approximately 240 BC. They are also credited with the first geared watermill (100 BC), as described by the architect Vitruvius, which employed the Greek invention of the toothed gear.
In the modern world, we have been using hydropower successful for decades before renewable energy even became a “thing.”
For example, the world-famous Hoover Dam generates approximately 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year. This is enough to serve 1.3 million people, and the energy usage spans Nevada, Arizona, and California.
The Hoover Dam officially opened for business in 1936, and three of its turbine-generators started operating at that time. It was not until 1961, however, that all its turbines were completed.
Dam building was slowed in the 1970s due to environmental concerns; however, no renewable energy source is without some environmental impact. Hydropower is still an important renewable resource, and now can include alternative sources such as ocean waves or small setups such as micro hydropower plants.
3. Geothermal Power
Geothermal power can include anything from hot springs to volcanos. While the idea of a volcano power plant might sound like something straight out of science fiction, it’s already happening. Costa Rica has already used volcanic energy to meet its target to operate for more than two months on 100% renewable energy sources.
Hawaii is also planning on using more volcanic power to fuel its energy needs. A volcano can be tapped for energy by using the hot groundwater near it and converting it steam. This then powers turbines that create electricity.
Solar Power’s Edge on the Competition
Certainly, solar power has held the dominant image in people’s minds about renewable energy for many decades. And, while the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) has recently changed its name to the “Smart Electric Power Alliance” to encompass other forms of alternative energy, solar is still the king.
Solar power is something that is accessible to more than just governments or large corporations. An individual can buy a simple solar-powered charger to keep a phone or tablet running. A family can install solar panels on home. Solar electricity is portable and powerful. Expect it to continue to dominate the popular consciousness in the decades to come.